In the past fortnight I have started an evening course being run over six weekly sessions at my local cinema, the stylish and welcoming Crouch End Picturehouse, one of my favourite hang-outs in this little corner of North London I call home. Titled Cinematic Representations of Mental Illness, each week it considers how three films represent a different class of illness. Whilst this blog set out to focus largely upon television and to consider a writer’s perspective, this broader consideration of the techniques filmmakers employ has been both fascinating and invaluable. Referencing the Goldwater rule and therefore cautioning against casual diagnosis of conditions, the focus is rather upon how writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, editors, and composers all seek to approximate the emotional experience of mental illness through their craft. Considering a range of perspectives, then, I will be posting a few thoughts on each set of films over the coming weeks, starting with the three selected movies that portray anxiety.
Adaptation. (2002) is a long-standing favourite of mine, written as it is by Charlie Kaufman. (Whilst co-credited to Donald Kaufman, his twin brother in the film, Donald is a complete fiction.) Its relevance to the theme of anxiety can be traced back to the story of the film’s development. Originally, Kaufman had sought to write a straight adaptation of the book “The Orchid Thief“, however he had found the lack of a clear narrative difficult to fit into a movie structure. Instead, the script he wrote was of his tortuous, anxiety-ridden creative process, whilst his uninhibited fictional twin brother, Donald—the polar opposite of Charlie’s timid persona, and a stand-in for who he might be but for his condition—attains success as a hack screenwriter.
Much of the film’s success in portraying anxiety comes from the painfully confessional script, with Nicolas Cage delivering frantic stream-of-consciousness voiceovers that betray Kaufman’s crippling insecurities related to his social and existential anxieties. There is something almost masochistic about writing such a version of oneself into a script, all the way to how the final act self-knowingly descends into violent and revengeful farce, replete with all the cliches that Kaufman had fought so hard to avoid in his work. Quite brilliantly, though, his approach to the adaptation turns out to suggest one potential solution to his anxiety and to honour the source material after all, as its author Susan Orlean wrote in the foreword to the published screenplay:
Strangely, marvellously, hilariously, his screenplay has ended up not being a literal adaptation of my book, but a spiritual one, something that has captured (and expanded upon) the essential character of what the book, I hope, was about: the process of trying to figure out one’s self, and life, and love, and the wonders of the world; and the ongoing, exasperating battle between looking at the world ironically and looking at it sentimentally. Oh, and orchids. It is about orchids, about how they adapt to their environment, sometimes resulting in the strangest and most marvellous forms, proving that the answer to everything might indeed be adaptation.
The Invitation (2016) is a tense, claustrophobic, psychological thriller. Its ensemble cast is led by Logan Marshall-Green‘s Will, who has responded to a dinner party invitation along with his new girlfriend that takes him to what is now his ex-wife’s house in the Hollywood Hills. Throughout an unsettling evening, dramatic flashbacks hint that Will is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following the death of his son. The circumstances of that death are never fully revealed—only serving to amplify the event in its unknowability—whilst the urgent flashbacks, editing, and use of music all work together to effectively demonstrate the intrusive thoughts and relived states of emergency and distress that are characteristics of the condition.
Events explode as the film moves towards its dramatic conclusion, and the intriguing suggestion is that, as painful and debilitating as is Will’s condition, his is perhaps the more honest and ultimately healthier response to process his grief compared to such stalling strategies as denial. Mary made reference to Sigmund Freud‘s 1930 publication “Civilisation and its Discontents” when speaking about The Invitation, and there is very much a sense in the movie of the destructive nature of the pressure upon the individual to conform to societal norms. I didn’t know this film but I do recommend it now, hence will not spoil its final act here.
The strongest aspect of Safe (1995) for me is Julianne Moore‘s career breakthrough performance as protagonist Carol White. Living an unfulfilled housewife’s life in the San Fernando Valley in the mid-Eighties, surrounded by vacuous friends and married to a decent but emotionally distant husband, she seemingly falls victim to an environmental illness known as multiple chemical sensitivity, also known colloquially as “Twentieth Century Disease”. Tellingly, this condition has never formally been accepted as purely physiological in nature, but instead linked to somatic symptom disorders, depression, and anxiety. Carol suffers a number of panic attacks that are judged perfectly by Moore in her performance such that they feel urgent and real whilst never tripping into melodrama, as they so easily might have done. Crafted with a dexterous touch and in contrast to the energy of the anxiety-led sequences in the previous two film choices, these sequences typically comprise longer takes, whilst they are often prefaced by contaminating background radio or television broadcasts discussing environmental or apocalyptic concerns.
Given how much Carol appears to have internalised her anxiety and finds it so difficult to voice her emotions, the somatic nature of her symptoms, and the weight loss to which she submitted herself through the film’s shoot, are effective ways to render her internal anxiety visual. Ultimately, Carol moves to a New Age-type retreat that promotes a deep ecology philosophy, and where she can start to decontaminate her life. Here, in spite of hints that the leader of the retreat is somewhat self-serving, she begins to comes to terms with a deep-rooted sense of self-hatred. (Incidentally, Carol’s exile reminded me somewhat of Northern Exposure‘s Mike Monroe, whose afflictions were virtually identical and led to him living in self-imposed isolation in a geodesic dome in Cicely, Alaska.) An understated film, Safe is all the more effective for that, and is also well worth checking out.
For those with an interest in cinematic representations of mental illness in general (as I’m guessing and hoping most readers of this blog are), I would certainly recommend that you follow the course lecturer Mary Wild on Twitter to find out more about similar courses and appearances, and that you check out the Projections podcast, co-hosted by Mary and which has already discussed different sets of movies around the same set of mental illnesses covered in this course. Mary describes herself as a “Freudian cinephile”; I have to confess that when I studied psychology (around two decades ago now) I was quick to dismiss Freud’s body of work as outdated and flawed in comparison to other doctrines, but her carefully considered lectures have given me cause to dust off some of his tomes from my bookshelf and give his ideas fresh consideration. That’s quite a turnaround for me, and I’m sure the rest of the course will continue to give me food for thought. Next: three films on the theme of depression.